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Canvassing the Votes: A Paperwork Fandango

[My story in today's Style section.]

The interested parties are crammed into Room 315 of the Fairfax County Government Center. It's a sprawling structure with lots of glass and big atriums and spacious offices, but somehow all the action -- all the clerical drama -- has been concentrated in this one little space. There are 12 rectangular tables, each with a pair of election workers and, standing right behind them, a pair of partisans, one Democrat and one Republican, all of them staring at pieces of paper, and envelopes, and tally sheets, and checklists, and Statements of Results.

What doesn't fit on the tables is placed on the floor. The scene is one great paperwork fandango. The routine canvassing of the county's votes started yesterday morning and, despite a furious pace, won't likely end until tomorrow.

The Republicans are easily identified: They're the ones looking tense, talking on cellphones, conferring in hallways.

"They're looking real serious," said Democrat Gary Allen. "You understand why."

He was speaking yesterday afternoon, when Democrat Jim Webb held a lead of about 7,000 votes over Republican incumbent senator, George Allen. The outcome of the Virginia race could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. This has potential to be another Florida Recount situation, though an initial canvassing of the canvassing turned up no sign of a botched vote. Given the stakes, Room 315 was fairly calm, if not exactly serene.

"No fights have broken out. Everyone's very civil," said Judy Flaig, the county's election manager.

You might ask: Where are the votes? You know, the ballots ? It is an antiquated question, like asking directions to the nearest smithy or cooper or farrier. The votes are in many forms. Some electronic voting machines produce a record in the form of a paper tape, much like a cash register receipt, which is stapled to the Statement of Results from each precinct.

There are also USB flash drives, the little computer doohickeys not even as big as a Pez dispenser. These come from the WINvote electronic voting machines, and are kept in large white envelopes marked 7B and packed into a cardboard box that, as of 3 p.m. yesterday, was sitting on the floor of Room 317.2 ("Work Room," said the sign by the door).

Flaig has one of the only keys to the deadbolted room, and it was last seen in her left pocket after she gave a reporter a brief tour. The room is sealed with tape at night.

There is yet another redundancy, she said: The machines record an image of each ballot, which can be printed out if necessary. But she hopes it won't be necessary, as she has enough paperwork on her hands as it is.

"I estimated it would be 53 miles of paper for Fairfax County if we had to print every ballot," she said. "We're concerned that would be one more thing to argue about, and we'd have a Florida every time we voted."

Voting is the noblest endeavor in a democracy, but rather eccentric in practice. This is why Election Day never ends anymore. There must be recounts. There must be hardball lawyering. There must be suspicion of fraud, of voter intimidation, of ballot tampering, and every other manner of malign machination.

"Warning: Tampering with voting equipment is a Class 5 felony," say signs on the wall of the elections office.

Lawyers are currently rambling across Virginia to make sure their chosen side won the Senate election Tuesday, and they will find that every jurisdiction has its own characters, its own habits, its own processes for reporting and counting votes. All electoral politics is local, perhaps to a fault.

Voting is enshrined in the Constitution and executed in the gymnasium, the church basement, the aging recreation center. We vote in places in which apparently by law all chairs must be folding. There are no voting "booths" anymore, no curtain, just these newfangled electronic contraptions that sit on telescoping legs and can collapse into something no bigger than carry-on luggage.

We spend billions on attack ads, 10 cents for the stubby pencil to mark a provisional ballot in affluent Bethesda.

You can make the case that it's not rinky-dink, but charming, folksy, homey, that we should be grateful that it's not standardized and gussied up. Voting is arguably the last modest endeavor in America. The ambiance of the polling place is pleasingly muted. The rancor of TV shouting shows is nowhere heard. Naming rights to the ballot box haven't been sold to any corporation. The volunteers radiate good cheer. They make sure everyone gets an "I voted" sticker. But the electronic machines are an odd fit into the landscape, a bit too technological. Many people emerging from the polls in Maryland and Virginia Tuesday spoke of their distrust of the machines.

Many voters want a paper trail. A receipt of some kind. They don't like the idea of their votes flying off into the void.

"After you hit the button it goes into the ether," said Bill Parsons after voting at a polling place on Sangamore Road in Bethesda. "A leap of faith shouldn't be necessary."

Katherine "Kit" Krents gave one of the few strong endorsements: "It's a snap. Love it! . . . We're in the digital age."

But Valerie Bonham had just finished making her selections when the machine abruptly spit out her voting card and gave her an error message. It was that most dreaded thing in electronic balloting: The glitch . She told the election officials, and Chief Judge Salome Creighton tried to reprogram her card by referring to a sheet of paper titled Using the Encoder . The judge tried inserting the card into the Encoder, which was just a little sleevelike thing with buttons on it. She also got on the phone and called another election official.

"I don't say 'yes' when it is asking me 'create'?" Creighton said into the phone.

The Encoder eventually behaved, and Bonham cast her ballot.

Over in McLean, Fred Mittelman, chief election officer of the El Nido precinct, did the best he could to help a drunk.

This was around lunchtime, Mittelman recalled later. The intoxicated gentleman was standing in the gymnasium of the Chesterbrook School. The machines aren't any more complicated than an ATM, but some people have fat fingers, Mittelman said, or they try to tap the screen with just a fingernail, which doesn't work. And the machines are definitely tricky if your internal gyroscope has gone wobbly.

"I keep hitting the 'next' button and it doesn't work," the man said.

"Try hitting it squarely in the middle," Mittelman told him.

Success! Another vote counted, and eventually, stripped of its colorful past, scrutinized by officials and partisans in Room 315 of the elections office.

By Joel Achenbach  |  November 9, 2006; 7:04 AM ET
 
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